MONTREAL (Reuters) - A Muslim teacher once jailed by Canada as a security threat denied on Friday he had radicalized Canadian teens believed to have headed to Syria to fight with Islamic State, saying his school had only brief contact with one of the six students.
The students, four men and two women aged 18 and 19, left Montreal in January and February for Turkey and then on to Syria, according to media reports, the latest in a string of young Westerners who have become radicalized and have headed to the Middle East hoping to fight with Islamic State.
The teacher, Adil Charkaoui, told a news conference in Montreal that anti-Muslim sentiment in Quebec is to blame for alienating Muslim students, not his classes, where he said only Arabic, the Koran and “basic notions” are taught.
He said only one of the departed students took a course at his school, which rented classroom space from two colleges in the Montreal area. Both colleges have canceled rental contracts with Charkaoui, accusing him of radicalizing students.
“Having checked the facts, I can tell you that individual was registered with the school but only attended two classes, not two months as reported ... after that he left the class,” Charkaoui told a news conference in Montreal.
“I‘m stunned by the twisted logic of the spokespersons of the two (colleges) and the pseudo-experts that are blaming radicalization of young people for what has happened,” he added, noting that his school does not support Islamic State.
Classes proceeded as usual on Friday at the College de Maisonneuve, a 5,000-student pre-university and technical college in Montreal where three of the teenagers studied.
“I didn’t see anything strange with them. They prayed like everyone else,” said student Marwa Durouoch, 18, who said she knew the three teenagers.
But Durouoch, who wears a head scarf, also expressed deep feelings of frustration with what she perceives as a lack of religious freedom for Muslims in Quebec.
“We’re in a prison here. We’re not allowed to practice our religion ... They’re in the process of copying France,” she said, noting that she and many fellow students want to leave the French-speaking province.
Her frustration echoed that of one of the departed students, Shayma Senouci, who in 2013 called on Facebook friends to sign a petition against Quebec’s “Charter of Values”, proposed legislation that had sought to prohibit public-sector employees from wearing or displaying conspicuous religious symbols, including Muslim headscarves.
The legislation died when the nationalist Parti Quebecois, which spearheaded the Charter, lost power in last year’s provincial election, but tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims in Quebec remain.
Senouci’s Facebook account included a video of a Muslim woman being harassed on a Montreal bus with a one-word comment: “disgusting”, and was punctuated with posts last year in support of Gaza, calling the Israeli action there a “genocide”, and several referencing the Koran.
Montreal Police declined to comment on the case of the six students. Officials at College de Maisonneuve also declined comment.
Canada had tried to deport Charkaoui, an outspoken Moroccan-born advocate against Islamophobia, arresting him in 2003 and keeping him imprisoned or under surveillance for six years under a security certificate, based on classified information from Canada’s spy agency.
Ottawa claimed Charkaoui had trained at an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan. The government eventually withdrew its case against Charkaoui rather than endanger the spy agency’s sources. He was granted Canadian citizenship in July 2014.
Writing by Andrea Hopkins; Editing by Peter Galloway and Alan Crosby